Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Is it art? Creative, literary, and narrative non-fiction

One day I plan to write a book for writers called Don’t Do As I Did. Included will be a chapter on applying for grants and residencies.

I’ve been a slacker in this regard. In the spirit of better late than never, I thought I might apply for funding to help me finish Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race Before. From my own shrinking bank account, I’ve spent more than I care to admit on research, and I still have one more trip to fund. Beyond that, the grant application process is good for fine-tuning a project, and if awarded, a grant shows you’ve proven up through a competitive process.

But first there was the question of whether my project would qualify. So I queried the funding agency:

I'd like to apply for a project grant to finish my narrative nonfiction project Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold. But looking over past awards, I see few that have funded any sort of nonfiction projects, especially in recent years. Is there a preference perhaps for fiction and poetry? I don't want to waste everyone's time with an application that's not suited to the scope and interests of the program. 

The response:

Indeed, our program does not consider pure nonfiction work. The program supports "creative writing" and as such includes fiction, poetry, scriptworks and "creative" nonfiction. 

What’s “pure nonfiction”? What’s “creative nonfiction”? On the broader scale, what’s “art”?

Smarter people than I have been arguing about the nature of art since Cro-Magnon told the first story around a campfire. The advent of creative nonfiction has only complicated the question. If we’re talking about inventing facts, I can point you to piles of nineteenth century travelogues that play very loose with the facts. Does that make them art? Perhaps art is personal. But then that would exclude much brilliant, creative poetry, not to mention nonfiction and fiction, simply because the author herself is not immediately visible in the product. You say art must be original, but doesn’t that encompass all writing that’s not plagiarized?

As part of my research, I met this week with my re-found friend Phyllis, who happens to be a descendant of one of the women who’ll appear in my book. An anthropologist, Phyllis reminded me that the indigenous people of Alaska and the Yukon think in terms of process, not product.

Here’s how art looks from that perspective: In the acting of making, the artist activates pleasure. That’s my creative pursuit with this project. I’m writing Kate Carmack’s memoir on her behalf, her life as she would have seen it, or as closely as I can approximate that. Like memoir, her story is grounded in fact, but narrated in such a way that it activates delight and introspective in the reader.

Creative nonfiction is literary nonfiction is narrative nonfiction. That’s the prevailing sentiment among writers, as nearly as I can tell. Though I won’t invent dialogue, you’ll find nearly every other element of fiction at work in this story, including plot, tension, scene, character, and voice.

As it turns out, the grant officer reconsidered my question and amended the response: yes, they do consider narrative nonfiction. There goes my excuse.